Four summers ago, I made a memory I wish I could forget. It’s the kind of memory that makes me cringe every time I recall it. I try to push it out of my brain as quickly as I can. When I do think on it, I am filled with regret.
I worked at a local hospital as a chaplain. I was interning there as part of my seminary education, and the work was emotionally grueling. After a few days of training I was thrown into the deep end to either sink or swim. I counseled pregnant teenagers, and comforted families through the illness of a loved one. I rushed to the ER when a trauma arrived and contacted the victim’s family. I sat with them and offered prayer after the doctor informed them of their loss. It was rewarding work, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
It was also the occasion for one of my greatest regrets.
During my last night at the hospital a particularly urgent trauma came in. A 28-year-old had been driving under the influence, swerved from the road, was ejected from the vehicle, and landed on his head. When he arrived at the hospital he was still alive, but he did not live long. I soon found myself in the position of calling his grandparents to come to the hospital.
As chaplains, we weren’t permitted to give any medical information to families. We couldn’t even tell the family if the patient was dead or alive — that was the doctor’s job. Of course, whenever a family arrived, that was all they kept asking, “Are they OK? Are they OK!?” But I couldn’t let on what I knew.
On this particular night, I couldn’t find the doctor anywhere and the family kept waiting, repeatedly asking me what had happened to their grandson. I became increasingly flustered as the weight of the news bore down on me. Eventually the grandmother stopped me, looked me square in the eye and said, “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
I looked back at her for a moment, faltered under the pressure of the moment, and grinned. I smiled at her the way one does when they’re uncomfortable, and then light-heartedly replied, “Just sit here for a minute and I will try to find the doctor.”
It haunts me to this day. Why did I smile? Why did I respond so inappropriately when I had information that would shortly devastate her?
Describing the situation now, it may not seem that significant, and it was the very least of the family’s concerns. But there is something about my response that, to this day, feels horribly wrong. It was the wrong thing to do. I acted like I was in a hair salon apologizing for the wait, not a hospital emergency room about to impart the worst news of their lives. To smile in that moment was immature and terribly insensitive. Whenever I think about it, I wish I could take it back, take back that entire interaction, and respond the way I should have. Not as the sheltered, inexperienced 24-year-old that I was.
Why is it so difficult to say the right thing in times of tragedy? Why is it so hard to provide the comfort I long to share? Instead of providing comfort, why do I find myself filling the silence with awkward, empty-feeling words?
I suspect it is because of my sheer helplessness. In the face of suffering it is natural to want to help, but as a human there is little I can do to offer comfort amidst tragedy. I can make a casserole or provide a shoulder to cry on, but I can’t make the pain go away. I can’t fix the situation. I don’t have that kind of power, and I’m not comfortable with that fact. So I squirm, say the wrong thing, and smile when I shouldn’t.
Which brings me back to that night in the hospital. What was I even doing there? I couldn’t heal that couple’s grandson. I didn’t even respond the way I should have. What good could have come of my presence there? And more importantly, what convinced my supervisors to unleash young, naïve seminarians into situations they couldn’t possibly be equipped to handle?
As I have reflected on this experience, and our human limitations, I think I have finally settled on an answer. My supervisors released me into that hospital because they had great faith, not in my own capacity to offer counsel, but in God’s.
In John 14:16 and again in verse 26, Jesus promises to send a great Comforter, the Holy Spirit, after He is gone. This Comforter will “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” However the most astounding words of Jesus come two chapters later in John 16:7: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you.”
In other words, it is be better to have the Holy Spirit than to have Jesus standing next to us in the flesh and blood. Isn’t that remarkable? How often I have thought, “If only I could just ask Jesus in person what I should do or say!” But Jesus contradicts this kind of thinking, teaching that I already have all I need, inside of me.
As a human, I can’t offer much comfort in tragedy. As a Christian, I can. Not because I have special wisdom or ability that regular humans do not have, but because of the Holy Spirit working through me. That is why it is better to have the Holy Spirit than to have Jesus standing beside us. When Jesus left the disciples, He did not take His ministry with Him. His work continues on, but we are now blessed to participate in it.
So what does that teach me about comforting a friend who has miscarried her child, or my mom as she grieves the loss of her father? It teaches me that as a human who is limited by experience and knowledge, I can offer little, but the Holy Spirit can offer much. Knowing this, I can comfort others best when I become small so that God can become big. I need to get out of the way to let the Divine Comforter work, and I can do this in three ways.
Pray. This is the greatest outlet for my feelings of helplessness. I feel most effective as a comforter when I am storming the gates of Heaven with my prayers. And when it comes to prayer I do not want to make empty promises. If I tell a hurting friend or loved one that I will pray for them, I do it. I also remind them later through an e-mail or card that they have been prayed for.
Look to the Psalms of Lament. When a friend is overwhelmed by sorrow, I try to point them towards the immovable truths of Scripture. However, I am also careful about what Scripture I choose, because the obvious choices are not always the best. Upbeat verses about God’s goodness can ring hollow in mourning, but the Psalms of Lament give voice to our deepest groans of despair. They also give Christians permission to cry out to God in anger without the concern that they are being less faithful. The Psalms not only permit Christians to shake their fist at God, but they offer a gentle guidance back towards the One in whom they can take refuge. (Examples of these Psalms include Psalms 44, 60, 74, 88, and 142.)
Be still. In times of comforting, I am too often quick to speak. I have a tendency to fill the silence with as much “advice” as I can squeeze out of my lungs. Over time, however, I am learning to be comfortable with silence and simply be still with those who are suffering. By resisting the urge to talk, I make room for the Holy Spirit to speak instead. By simply sitting next to a friend and saying nothing, the Holy Spirit has used my very presence as a comfort. Stillness makes space for grief, yet reminds the grieving that they are not alone.
In 2 Corinthians 12:10, Paul confesses that when he is weak he is strong. This verse summarizes what it is to be a comforter. It also offers an insightful response to my feelings of helpfulness. Ultimately, comforting is about making myself into the most effective vehicle for the work of the Spirit that I can be. When those feelings of helplessness creep in, I stand confident in the knowledge that it isn’t about me at all. My grieving friends and family don’t need me or my wise counsel — they need Jesus. As a vessel of the Holy Spirit, I need only hide behind the Divine Comforter and watch Him move.
Article photo copyright © 2010 Kelly Sauer. Used with permission.
Article photo copyright © 2010 Kelly Sauer. Used with permission.